My neighbor runs a landscaping business. He has a diesel pickup truck that he likes to let idle in his driveway in the back, or on the street in front of our houses. It just sits there and runs, spewing foul fumes I can smell all the way inside the house. I really don’t understand why he does this; it’s so bad for our air and so wasteful of fuel. With our climate situation, the whole thing just makes me furious. Have I said anything to him about this? Heck no. Of course not! As a person profoundly formed by the passive-aggressive ways of Minnesota nice, I just stay in my house and stew about it.
This experience with my neighbor reminds me that as much as I might prefer to avoid confrontation and conflict, building a healthy community means dealing with harm directly. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus offers a process for addressing hurt that is shaped by both accountability and grace. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Direct, clear, and personal communication is essential, whenever possible. “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Receiving feedback respectfully and showing we understand is in itself an act of healing and repair. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” In other words, the community needs to develop practices that allow people to have hard conversations in a supportive and meaningful way, so that these interactions don’t simply compound the original harm. “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the church, we seek to stay in relationship even when it is hard. And at the same time, we also need to maintain boundaries, to clearly say “no” to injustice, violence, and abuse. God loves Gentiles and tax collectors; God loves everyone, even people who do harm. And, when someone continues to hurt others, despite having received feedback about their behavior, when their actions are clearly out of step with the values of love and justice, it is necessary to place distance between that person and the community.
The final verses of today’s lesson identify forgiveness as the key practice that allows the Christian community to be a transformational force in the world. Peter asks: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” There’s some fascinating biblical context behind Jesus’ response: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” The opening chapters of Genesis portray humanity cursed by endless cycles of violence. Cain murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy. Cain’s punishment was to wander the earth as a fugitive. Cain worried to God that he was without protection. So God placed a mark on Cain to indicate that anyone who killed him would face “sevenfold vengeance.” A few verses later, the words of Cain’s great, great, great grandson, Lamech, make it clear that the habit of violent retribution was being passed on through the generations. Lamech said: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23–24)
So when Jesus instructs his followers to forgive seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven, as it can also be translated), he is not just randomly throwing out a big number. He is saying that practicing forgiveness is a way of reversing Cain’s curse. Cultivating a culture in which forgiveness is the norm is world-altering. It will liberate us from escalating cycles of violence. It will halt the ever-expanding ripples of hurt. It will offer a way out of constant warfare.
In 2018, folk singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile recorded an album titled By the Way, I Forgive You. In an interview with NPR she says, forgiveness
Is so radical and so filthy and it gets made out to be such a casual concept, when really it might be one of the deepest things that we do as humans—to forgive for real deep hurts.
In conjunction with releasing the album, Carlile wrote a social media post, sharing a story of forgiveness from her own life. Here’s what she said in the post:
I would like to forgive Pastor Tim. I forgive you for deciding not to baptize me when I was a teenager for being gay. It was not so much that you wouldn’t or couldn’t do it because of the tenets put in place by the Baptist rules and traditions, but because you waited until all my family and friends were present and waiting in the pews for the ceremony. I don’t believe you did it to humiliate me—I think you struggled with the decision and simply ran out of time. I think you probably still do struggle with it. I’d like you to know that I still love you and that I understand we’re all on a journey together, trying our best to walk through the world with honor and dignity—but what I want you to know most of all is that you did not damage my faith. Not in god, not in humanity and not in myself. The experience inspired me to help other gay kids and my spiritual LGBTQ brothers and sisters come to terms with the disappointments they’ve endured on the rugged road to peace and acceptance. I think you’d appreciate that process. You’ve helped far more people than you’ve hurt and you helped me too. Thank you.
This story helps me think about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness does not gloss over pain; in a way it magnifies the pain. Telling the truth about the hurts we inflict on each other (whether that’s just to ourselves or more publicly) is a vital part of forgiveness. And whether we are the one who has been injured, or the one who has caused the harm, it is often very difficult to look deeply into this damage and account for its impact. In order to forgive Pastor Tim, Carlile had to relive the shock and humiliation of the moment when he denied her baptism in front of all of her family and friends. I think that is what Carlile means when she says forgiveness is “ugly” or even “filthy.”
And forgiveness does not erase or excuse the harm. What it does is offer an alternative to the curse of Cain, the culture of retributive violence. Forgiveness means letting go of the possibility of revenge. It means choosing not to return harm for harm. And forgiveness opens up space in people and communities for something new—unleashing creativity, life and freedom. I see this tremendous power of forgiveness in Carlile’s ability to hold love for Pastor Tim together with her disappointment in him. And I see it also in the way she responded to this hurt. Rather than allowing it to silence her, shame her, or disempower her, this event spurred Carlile to redefine and reclaim her faith, to become a fierce advocate for herself and others.
I am serving on the anti-racism committee for the MN Conference, together with Chris, Jean, and Hikaru from our congregation. The last time we met, we heard a report about conversations our consultant had conducted with clergy of color in our conference. Many of them described feeling isolated and unsupported. These comments sparked discussion about the fact that we all (to greater or lesser degrees, depending on our privilege) feel this lack of support and connection as we operate within our church, which is so shaped by the values of white supremacy culture—things like individualism and competition. And in our congregational care team retreat this past week we had a robust conversation about how becoming a community that truly cares for each other is one element of being “progressive and prophetic Christians.” By “prophetic” we don’t mean future-telling; we mean truth-telling. We are pointing to the biblical prophets, who spoke up about their people’s pain and oppression and called forth a new culture of justice and care. The beloved community we yearn to be part of will not be possible unless we can let go of “Minnesota nice” and learn to deal with harm the way Jesus taught us—directly and truthfully, with accountability and boundaries as well as grace and forgiveness. These are the practices that can lift the curse of Cain; that can unleash a blessing powerful enough to change the church and change the world. Amen.